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Born Under an Awesome Sign

Comedian Bill Engvall, who's performing at the Irvine Improv, finds humor in trends.

August 15, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comedian Bill Engvall wasn't sorry to see the end of the '90s, a decade in which you couldn't just order a cup of coffee--it had to be a latte or an espresso--and "awesome" was the word du jour.

The only problem, Engvall says onstage, is that we were using the word wrong: "We were saying stuff like 'Ooh, your car is awesome." Or "Your yard looks awesome."

"That's not awesome," Engvall says, quoting Webster's, which defines the word as anything that leaves you in awe and wonder: "Like winning the lottery--twice. That's awesome," Engvall says.

"Getting a call from the IRS saying you've been audited and they owe you $50,000. . . . That'd be awesome," he says.

Or, "Ladies, you wake up tomorrow morning and the newspaper reads, 'Scientists have discovered a way for men to experience childbirth'. . . . That'd be awesome."

Or, "Getting invited to the Playboy Mansion--on trampoline night. . . . That'd be awesome."

And for Engvall, having a new comedy CD titled--guess what?--"Now That's Awesome" is pretty darned awesome as well.

Along with the title routine, Engvall looks at topics such as the California bar scene, family vacations, surfing lessons with his teenage daughter, cable TV's "The Crocodile Hunter," and the terror of thinking there might be a snake in the toilet.

"I firmly believe this is the strongest of the three [comedy albums] I've done," Engvall, 43, said by phone from his home in Manhattan Beach.

Engvall's new CD will be released next week, but fans can get a jump on its contents by catching his act at the Irvine Improv, where he opens a three-night engagement Sunday.

The Improv gig is a rare comedy club performance for the veteran comic with the good-ol'-boy-next-door demeanor and fun-loving, good-natured delivery. In fact, the Improv is the only club date of the year for Engvall, who has been performing primarily in theaters and arenas over the past five years.

The early-morning interview was squeezed in before he had to catch a flight to Kansas City, where he would link up with comedian-pal Jeff Foxworthy for a weekend show. In addition to doing their dates, the pair have been on what is billed as "The Blue Collar Comedy Tour."

Although Engvall makes fun of the '90s in his act, the decade was unforgettable for him.

He won the American Comedy Award for Best Male Stand-Up Comedian in 1992. He was a regular on the ABC sitcom "Delta" starring Delta Burke, and he had a co-starring role on NBC's "The Jeff Foxworthy Show."

Even more significant, he struck gold with his signature "Here's your sign" routine.

As Engvall sees it, some people ought to be forced to wear signs that say "I'm stupid." He encounters candidates everywhere he goes.

Like the time he pulled into a gas station back home in Texas with a flat tire and the attendant looked at the tire and said, "Tire go flat?"

"Nooooo," Engvall drawled in response. "Hell, I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me."

"Here's Your Sign," Engvall's 1996 debut comedy album, topped the Billboard Comedy Chart for 15 straight weeks. It also peaked at No. 5 on Billboard's Country Album Chart. A "Here's Your Sign" comedy-duet with country artist Travis Tritt also hit No. 1 on Billboard's Country Singles Sales Chart for 10 weeks. And "Dorkfish," Engvall's 1998 follow-up album, rose to the top spot on Billboard's Comedy Chart.

Now there's "Now That's Awesome."

"I hope that's going to be the next hook, the next 'Here's your sign,' because people say 'That's awesome' all the time," Engvall said.

In answer to just how awesome it is for him to have a new comedy CD out, Engvall said he was talking to his brother-in-law, comedian Tom McTeague, the other day and complaining about what wasn't happening in his career: the TV series Engvall would like to star in, the movies he'd like to do.

But at one point, Engvall found himself thinking, "You're an idiot. Shut up. You're talking to a guy who'd give his left arm to be releasing his third album. . . .' Sometimes I have to kind of step back, slap myself [and say], 'Hey, be grateful,' and I am."

But show business lends itself to that kind of dwell-on-what-you-don't-have thinking, he said.

"It's almost as if you don't have your own sitcom, you're not successful. That is so wrong. The problem I have is the bar I've had to compare myself to is guys like [Jerry] Seinfeld, Foxworthy and [Garry] Shandling."

After doing his show in Kansas City with Foxworthy, Engvall was scheduled to appear the next night with comic-ventriloquist Jeff Dunham in Branson, Mo.

But his life on the road is not as hectic as it once was. He said he typically works only three weekends a month. With a laugh, he said, "This is great. I'm working less, making more; I'm putting out albums. . . . I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop."

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